One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is hearing from students down the road of life who, looking back, say they value what they received in the classroom. Having been blessed a few times this week that way, prompts me to think of my favorite teachers – the ones who had the most influence. I’ve had many good teachers, a few famous ones, that have benefited me very much. But, at the top of the list is someone you have never heard of – my fourth grade teacher, Miss McKenna. (I just learned yesterday that her first name was Florence. Children had no need for adult first names in those days of healthy subordination.)
Miss McKenna’s fourth grade class met in a box shaped, chocolate brown brick three-story building which was Hillside Grove Elementary, Kechi, KS. Surrounded by wheat fields, the building was constructed in 1873, one of the oldest then standing in the Wichita area. The broad deep ruts of the old Chisholm Trail, formed by Texas long horns in the 1870’s, could still be seen nearby, cutting a swath across the otherwise flat prairie.
The ceilings in our classroom were so high, that you could not see them unless you looked on purpose. There were great windows to the left of our desks that faced East and looked out on a spare steel playground with the wheat fields beyond. There was also a baseball diamond of compacted red dirt covered with more red ants than grass. There was no forgiving mulch, like today, spread over the playground, only a thin layer of coarse sand over compacted dirt. It gave the message that we were not so fragile as to need pampering.
The wood trim in our classroom was black walnut, the most available hardwood in 1873 – and far too costly a building material for any modern school. It symbolized the quality without ostentation that pervaded the place, like the difference between the lack luster appearance of real gold compared to the glitter of pyrite, otherwise known as fool’s gold.
At the front of the classroom sat a large oak teacher’s desk. To our left, as we faced the desk, was an American flag and the portrait of George Washington. To the right was the Kansas flag and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Every morning we stood beside our desks, hands over our hearts, and launched the day with the Pledge of Allegiance. There was as much decency and order as one could hope for in a public place.
Third-graders looked forward to having Miss McKenna as their teacher. She was not easy, she was firm and challenging and just, wielding benevolent authority with unerring judgment. She exuded competence. That was 1960. I learned yesterday from her obituary that she began teaching at age 20 in a one-room rural school in Kingman County Kansas in 1934. She did not receive the now regarded as minimal BA degree until 1961.
She was physically imposing in stature, at six feet tall, plus the elevation provided by sensible teacher shoes, with broad shoulders – a body style that seemed fitted for farm life in Kansas before tractors or electricity. She also had a deep commanding, no-nonsense voice. My sister still remembers her booming voice calling out “bus 17!” which was our signal every day to file out of the building for the hour-long bus ride home.
Several events stand out to me from that year, but especially these. For one, she did her best to encourage our artistic efforts by a monthly competition for the best drawing on the theme of the month. I won the October contest with my crayon drawing of a house with a picket fence, decorated for Halloween. It marked the peak of my artistic career. I can still see it in my mind hanging on the bulletin board of honor. I also received a candy bar, which would have cost me a whole week’s allowance to buy. It’s the most I ever earned for drawing. My drawing abilities have not advanced since.
Another memorable event was Valentine’s Day, 1961 when at her bidding, all twenty-five of us constructed decorated receptacles for the twenty-four Valentines we were sure to receive. She instructed us all to bring a Valentine for everyone. About that time, Miss McKenna intercepted some love notes that apparently went beyond the bounds of equity that St. Valentine had sanctioned for his day. This prompted a brief extemporaneous sermon on how we were “too young to know what love meant”. She punctuated the conclusion with a few quiet tears. I felt at the time that there was something deeper behind her words than I could understand. She was right, as she always was. We didn’t know what love meant, and she did, which she proved every day as she shepherded her little flock.
In the spring of that year she showed us again when a new student, Maddie, joined us who was quite different from the rest. She smelled bad, she couldn’t read aloud very well, and was soon discovered to have lice and had to sit apart from the rest of us. This spawned lots of keep-away games among us involving “cooties”. I can still remember the sad looks on her face, like a homeless puppy. Miss McKenna did her best to help her fit in and prosper from her education like the rest of us. What permanent affect it may have had I don’t know as her family moved away early in the following year. But it had an affect on me.
For forty-five years, her obituary tells me, Miss McKenna labored in out-of-the-way places to put all the children who came her way on the right path. I look back on those days and I realize what a privileged education I received. Her obituary tells me she passed away in April of 2008, just six years shy of a century. “As the Milky Way is made up of many small unnamed stars, so heaven is mostly good souls who performed the duties of inferior callings” says John Donne. Small can be great.